If you can cross the road in Cairo, you can understand democracy in the Middle East.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
July 17 2007 12:55 PM

Why Did the Cairene Cross the Road?

To help Americans understand how democracy works in the Middle East.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

I owe my life to Umm Ahmad. Shortly after I moved to Cairo, a friend suggested I hire her to be my shaghaalah (maid). She did a great job of keeping Cairo's notorious dust under control, but that's not why she saved my life. After our first meeting, during which she took stock of my scant supplies, Umm Ahmad took me to a local shop to purchase a mop, broom, sponges, and a variety of cleaning fluids. On our trek back to my flat, as we walked the wrong way down what was supposed to be a one-way street in Cairo's Zamalek neighborhood, a bus careened toward us. Umm Ahmad motioned me out of the way as the bus came screaming past us. It came within no more than 2 inches of Umm Ahmad, but she didn't even flinch. She just kept walking. And so began my introduction in how to negotiate and, crucially, survive Cairo traffic.

To the uninitiated, Cairo traffic is ferocious and dangerous. (The July 17 New York Times described it as "chaos.") Yet Cairenes think nothing of walking in the street (unavoidable, given the dilapidated or nonexistent state of sidewalks in many areas), darting across four lanes of traffic, and wading into masses of oncoming cars, buses, and trucks. Although Egypt has its share of traffic deaths (about 6,000 per year, not too much more than Turkey—a country of roughly comparable population—which averages 4,500 traffic fatalities a year), most Cairenes seem fearless. After a few months, even I had no problem ambling through traffic along Cairo's central axes. Why? Well, I didn't go to Egyptian driving school, and I didn't study Cairo's traffic laws, because they don't matter much. Instead, like most Cairenes, I became habituated to the informal rules of the road. I eventually grew to learn—after quite a few near misses—when to cross a busy street, when to stay put, when a car would swerve, and when it wouldn't. As a result, Cairo traffic doesn't look so menacing to me anymore.

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The point of all this is not simply to reminisce, but to point out one of the least understood but critically important factors that influence politics: informal institutions. These uncodified rules shape people's behaviors and expectations and contrast with formal institutions—such as constitutions, laws, decrees, and regulations—that also frame the way people think and act.

It goes without saying that informal institutions are not solely Middle Eastern phenomena. In the United States, advantages that accrue to those with access to "old boys' networks" and the often pernicious effect that money has on politics reflect the power of informal institutions. Understanding these uncodified, unwritten rules and norms helps provide an accurate and sophisticated understanding not only of the way Capitol Hill works but also how the Middle East works. Nevertheless, judging from the superficial initiatives and programs instituted by the current administration, the concept of informal institutions seems to be lost on the architects of the Bush strategy to promote change in the Arab world. Policy-makers failed to grasp how the uncodified rules of society often trump the formal institutions of Middle Eastern states.

If someone who grew up in a box were to one day emerge and read the constitutions of a variety of Middle Eastern states, this person would not be crazy (other than suffering the aftereffects of having grown up in a box) to believe that these countries were democratic. But Egypt, Algeria, Tunisia, and Syria—all countries with window-dressing constitutions—are far from democracies for two very important reasons. First, there is the problem of small print. In recent years, Arab governments have often trumpeted political reforms that are said to be ushering in a new era of more open politics. But when these measures are scrutinized carefully, it is abundantly clear they are "reforms" in name only. Consider, for example, Egypt's amended Political Parties Law, which the parliament passed in 2005as part of the ruling National Democratic Party's "New Thinking and Priorities of Reform" campaign. The new law actually makes it harder for opposition parties to organize than the old, rather restrictive law did. This is not the kind of reform the Bush administration had in mind when it launched its "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East in 2003.